Fire reignites opposition to controversial house

September 28, 1992|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

The fire that swept through the house at 91 Pennsylvania Ave. 14 months ago left the place uninhabitable.

Blackened walls are still visible from the alley behind the house. No fire damage shows in front.

The house is painted royal blue. And salmon pink. And white. The colors are in horizontal bands of varying widths, but most of the facade shows bare boards with a few flecks of teal blue still clinging to them.

Neighbors have complained about the house's appearance for at least a decade, but when a City Councilman got some recent calls on the subject, he asked the staff to find out what they could do.

The answer: legally, nothing.

So Mayor W. Benjamin Brown is trying to recruit a volunteer paint-and-repair crew, with the owner's permission.

Frances V. Waltz, who owns the house, did the painting years ago. She said she had a reason, but she won't talk about it publicly.

And she won't say whether she plans to repair the fire damage or have the house demolished.

"I'm not going to participate in that because I don't believe an article needs to be written about that house," Ms. Waltz told a reporter.

A few neighbors have tried recently to enlist the city government in having the house repaired or demolished. But none is willing to come forward publicly, and Pennsylvania Avenue no longer has a neighborhood association to speak for them.

Government officials say their hands are tied.

"The house is not in danger of collapse from what I can tell, so I cannot condemn it as being unsafe," said Ralph Green, chief of the county bureau of permits and inspections, which handles building inspections for the city.

Mr. Green declared the house unsafe after the July 4, 1991 fire, under a law that says a vacant building with unguarded windows and doors is a fire hazard.

When the owner failed to board up the doors and windows, the city public works department did it -- so the house is no longer unsafe, Mr. Green said.

Westminster does not have a housing code that would require property owners to paint or make repairs, the inspector said.

Westminster Planning and Public Works Director Thomas B. Beyard said the city can control property neglect such as weeds, "but this is different from a weed complaint."

Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein suggested a volunteer effort. Mr. Brown said he has tentative agreement from Ms. Waltz to allow community groups to repair the rear of the house and paint the front. The owner will choose the color of the paint.

Mr. Brown said he has been hearing complaints about the house since he moved to Pennsylvania Avenue 11 years ago.

"The condition of the house -- at least the exterior -- maybe abomination is too great a word, but it certainly isn't up to the condition of the neighborhood," the mayor said.

One woman who is trying to sell a nearby house for a member of her family said she believes the appearance of 91 Pennsylvania Ave. has affected sale prospects.

The woman asked not to be identified because of concern for the safety of her relative.

The woman said that one couple, prospective buyers, checked with the city and county governments about Ms. Waltz's house.

"The contract did fall through," the woman said. "I don't know how much bearing that had on it. But standing across the street looking at that [Waltz] house, it's not a beauty."

The fire that damaged an attached shed and the interior of the house was ruled an arson. But no arrests were made, and Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Bob Thomas says the case is now "pretty low priority."

If fire investigators get new information, they will pursue it, but the case is not under active investigation, Mr. Thomas said.

Councilman Edward S. Calwell said he has received two recent complaint calls about the condition of the house.

He said the callers asked not to be identified publicly and refused his invitation to attend a council meeting to discuss the issue.

He said he also got one unsigned letter.

Ms. Orenstein, who also lives on Pennsylvania Avenue, said the only comments she has received have been "neighborly concern" about the owner. The councilwoman said she has seen teen-agers harass Ms. Waltz as she walks along the avenue.

Irene Shireman, who maintains an immaculate white house with black shutters next door, said she has not acted on neighbors' suggestions that she should lead an effort to have something done about the place. But she said she does not believe it can be repaired cost-effectively.

Inside the burned house, plaster has fallen because of rain damage through a hole in the roof, she said. A tarp now covers the hole.

Despite the boarded-up windows and doors, Mrs. Shireman said, the house has been entered.

Ms. Orenstein said neighbors also have told her they occasionally hear noises inside the house.

Erma L. King, 78, the unofficial "mayor of Pennsylvania Avenue," lived at 91 Pennsylvania Ave. as a child.

"It was a well-built old house, but I don't know how badly it was burned," Miss King said. "The way it looks from the back, there may not be anything to do but tear it down. I don't know that it has any sentimental value."

Miss King said she had not been involved in trying to get city government action on the house.

Planning Director Beyard said he sees "no question" that the house could be rehabilitated.

But the State Department of Assessments and Taxation places the current value of the house at $0. The land on which the building rests is valued at $33,700.

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